Another Look at Liturgy

Today, Mere Orthodoxy ran an article by an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor which laments the loss of liturgy in Reformed churches in the West. The author, Cameron Shaffer, discusses the bankruptcy of a megachurch mentality that states, “Get rid of the psalms . . . and the world will come”–reinventing worship to attract the next generation to the church, with no thought given to what will keep them there.

I’m currently reading Reformed novelist Douglas Bond’s newest book–this one nonfiction–entitled God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To). Again and again, Bond calls for the Reformed church to return to the traditions and aesthetic standards of previous generations. Although he does not necessarily invoke the word “liturgy,” the idea is all over.

The list could go on. The year 2020 may be the beginning of a decade in which Protestants rediscover the value of liturgical awareness–returning not to the ceremonies of Rome but to the historic practices of worship, psalm-singing among them, that have characterized the church since the days of the apostles.

Veteran readers of this blog may remember a summer series several years ago entitled “A Look at Liturgy.” That series represented my first attempts to come to grips with the role of liturgy in the Reformed faith, using a report produced by the Christian Reformed Church in the 1970’s.

A few months ago, I discovered the book I should have used in that study: Abraham Kuyper’s book Our Worship (Eerdmans, 2009). Writing more than a century ago, Kuyper called for a resurrection of “liturgical awareness” in the Dutch churches of his own day, anticipating many of the consequences that an individualistic and consumeristic attitude toward worship would entail.

Time does not permit me to elaborate on Kuyper’s book here, other than to recommend it as an accessible, thorough, and valuable resource for ministers, musicians, and interested members. I will mention, however, that I am working on a six-part series in The Outlook magazine summarizing Kuyper’s book with commentary and study questions. The Outlook is thoughtful and important reading for all members of the United Reformed Churches in North America, and it is well worth a (very affordable) subscription. My introduction to Our Worship will appear in the January/February 2020 issue.

May what Kuyper called “liturgical awareness” contribute to a new flourishing of Reformed doctrine and life in this third decade of the twenty-first century.

–MRK

Goodbye to the Pocket Psalter?

In the afterglow of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal’s publication, one of the questions that rolls around every now and then is whether the publishers will ever prepare a pocket-sized version of the new book.

Pocket Psalter HymnalRemember the mini Psalter Hymnals of the CRC? We celebrated them here on URC Psalmody because they testified to a thriving culture of psalm- and hymn-singing—not just in church but also before bed, around the dinner table, or on the road. Even today, you can still get a pocket edition of the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter from Reformation Heritage Books, and multiple mini editions of the Book of Psalms for Worship are available from Crown & Covenant Publications.

So it’s only natural to hope that the advent of a new psalter-hymnal in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the United Reformed Churches in North America will bring the added blessing of a pocket edition. Sadly, that’s not likely—for at least three logistical reasons.

First of all, the Trinity Psalter Hymnal offers a very large collection of psalms and hymns—about 50% larger than the 1959/1976 “blue” Psalter Hymnal. That means the pages of the regular edition have to be very thin in order to allow it to fit in a pew rack. It’s difficult to imagine making the paper any thinner in a pocket edition without compromising the integrity and readability of the pages.

Here’s a second factor related to readability: The pages of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal are quite full. The songbook’s commitment to thorough versifications of the Psalms and complete hymn texts leads to a lot of small type and a complex, even busy, page layout. Unlike the larger and simpler type of the 1912 Psalter or the 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal, a pocket edition of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal would require cramming a lot into a small space.

The third reason a pocket Trinity Psalter Hymnal is unlikely is the expense involved in producing a separately-sized edition of the book. Despite the interest that some church members have expressed, the demand for pocket editions probably wouldn’t be high enough to justify the production costs.

For those of us who fondly remember the tradition of pocket Psalter Hymnals, this may sound like a loss. But it’s important to recognize that the idea of a miniature songbook reflects particular attitudes and beliefs toward worship. And it’s possible to honor and maintain those attitudes without needing a pocket-size hymnal in your hands. So how can we use the Trinity Psalter Hymnal the same way that generations of old used their pocket psalters?

  • Pocket psalters emphasized that singing is a personal devotional practice as well as a corporate activity. Consider buying your own copy of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal and keeping it nearby for family worship or for your own devotions.
  • Pocket psalters were often given to kids so they could learn the songs of the church using their very own book. (I own more than one pocket Psalter Hymnal with scratches and scribbles in the end pages!) If you have a personal Trinity Psalter Hymnal, encourage your kids to explore it for themselves. Sure, you may end up with crayon doodles and ripped pages in a once-pristine book, but you’ll be making a far more worthwhile investment in your children’s spiritual nourishment and development.
  • Pocket psalters were a picture of church membership: As we grow up in the family of God, the songs of his people become our songs too. Pastors and elders, consider giving Trinity Psalter Hymnals as profession-of-faith gifts to young adults in your congregation. There are leather-covered, gold-edged gift editions available for such occasions.

How have you incorporated the Trinity Psalter Hymnal into your personal and familial devotional life? What other opportunities are there to honor the devotional commitment that the tradition of pocket psalters represents?

–MRK

Synod, Kingdom Work, and the Trinity Psalter Hymnal

From heaven O praise the Lord,
On high the Lord O praise!
All angels, praise accord!
Let all his hosts give praise!
Praise him on high,
Sun, moon and star,
Sun, moon and star,
You heavens afar
And cloudy sky!

It took 21 years to move from the beginning of the URCNA’s Psalter Hymnal project to the final publication of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. Twenty-one years—that’s long enough for a member of the Songbook Committee to bear, raise, and graduate a child.

tph1010As an interested URCNA member who followed the publication process for only eight of those 21 years, I have only a small portion of the sense of accomplishment and celebration that accompanies the new book. But it truly was a foretaste of heaven to be present for this year’s joint meeting of the URCNA Synod and the OPC General Assembly from June 11 to 15 in Wheaton, Illinois, where the opening prayer service began with the singing of Psalm 148A from the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. United Reformed and Orthodox Presbyterian brothers singing a setting from the Reformed Presbyterian tradition of psalmody—it was a moment of full hearts and sincere praise.

Since volunteering as organist at the URCNA’s Synod Nyack in 2012, I’d always hoped for the opportunity to attend another synod. I never expected that the chance would come through representing Geneva College in the display hall. This new role surprised me—just as much as it surprised a number of readers who expected to see me at the organ bench rather than at an exhibitor table. It was wonderful to be reunited with so many familiar faces.

As it turns out, the connection between Geneva College and the work of these Reformed church gatherings is more than coincidental. I’m grateful for the countless conversations with alumni, parents, and prospective students throughout the week that revealed Geneva’s role in providing Biblically faithful education to generations of Reformed believers. This college exemplifies the kind of kingdom work that we heard about in sessions describing the relationship of the URCNA and OPC: an established commitment to Reformed doctrine, a ministry focused on the central role of local churches, and a tangible effort to evangelize and disciple those under its care.

And at the heart of this ministry of education are the psalms—in chapel, in choir, in church services, in dorm rooms. To give just one example, I had to leave synod early to attend a wedding of two friends who graduated from Geneva. Neither of them hails from a Reformed or Presbyterian background. But they sang psalms during their ceremony—psalms they would have never learned to sing at another college. Geneva teaches its students to understand the psalms as songs of the spirit that instruct, convict and edify the saints. Its graduates carry that gift with them, not just into Reformed and Presbyterian churches, but into a wide variety of congregations and denominations. And they share that gift with new generations of believers.

The psalms are not only songs of the spirit; they are also battle cries for the church’s struggle against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. The 21st century witnesses increasing pressures upon the church, including societal changes that require careful statements like the URCNA’s new Affirmations Regarding Marriage. Even within our own walls there are disagreements, divisions and the pervasive presence of sin. The community of saints still suffers the effects of the Fall—and we need the psalms in order to cry out for God’s wisdom and mercy.

So we set ourselves to seek the welfare of Zion, as Psalm 122 teaches us. And we do so with a dual perspective: a local focus that commits us to living faithfully in particular congregations, and a kingdom perspective that lifts us above the landscape to see our gospel mission in grander scale. One of the particular joys of synod is getting a glimpse of that kingdom outlook—an outlook that includes special places like Geneva College and special events like the publication of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.

That dual perspective is an inspiration and a challenge in my own life. Having graduated from Geneva, I’m now halfway through a master’s degree in communication at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. In the coming months I’ll be deciding whether to pursue an academic career through a Ph.D. or to move on to a seminary track. A kingdom outlook reminds me that ministry can occur in front of chalkboards as well as behind pulpits. A local focus reminds me to pursue the primary vocation of a faithful servant in my day-to-day responsibilities. Meanwhile, I’ve transferred my membership to a local Reformed Presbyterian (RPCNA) congregation—not because I’ve become convinced of a cappella exclusive psalmody but because the nearest URCNA church is four hours away. My faith has already grown through my time among this godly group of saints.

I hope this dual perspective will shape the future of URC Psalmody as well. A few months ago I entertained the notion of shutting down this blog, with its news feed inactive and much of its information out of date. But I was surprised and encouraged to hear from so many of you at synod that the existing content on this site continues to be a blessing. Sincere thanks to each one of you for reading, commenting and participating as we continue to seek God’s glory through the singing of his Word.

Most likely, the updates on URC Psalmody will continue to be sparse. But while there are still psalms to learn and kingdom work to be done, we press on!

In his service,

–MRK

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Announcing “Psalms for the King” Winner!

The results of our first giveaway raffle featuring Psalms for the King are in, and George Van Popta of Hamilton, ON, is the winner! Rev. Van Popta, your CD will be in the mail shortly. Thank you to everyone who participated, and please remember that if you would like a copy of this CD, it is still available online from Crown & Covenant. It is a worthwhile addition to any psalm collection!

–MRK

Announcing “Psalms for the King” Giveaway

2014 Genevans CD Insert COVER frontOne of the most common questions I receive on this blog is from readers looking for good recordings of the psalms. The list of psalm-singing recordings available on the web is already quite large, including some enjoyable (though outdated) recordings of the blue Psalter Hymnal and entire websites devoted to Scottish metrical psalmody. Today I’m happy to announce a wonderful addition to that list with the online release of one of my favorite CD’s, Psalms for the King.

Psalms for the King was recorded by my college choir, The Genevans, during the season that included a three-week international tour in the Philippines and Malaysia (you can read about that tour here). A freshman at the time, I got to sing all of these pieces as well as accompany a solo psalm setting on the organ (Track 14, “The Lord is my Shepherd”).

With the exception of the organ piece, Psalms for the King is entirely a cappella. That’s not for principled reasons as much as for practical ones: when you’re visiting concert locations that require piling into jeepneys and hiking through jungles, you can’t always guarantee there will be a piano or organ at your destination. But if you thought a cappella singing represents a single musical style, think again. Psalms for the King bridges the worlds of congregational psalmody and sacred classical music, with everything from Bruckner’s spine-tingling Os justi (Psalm 37:30-31) to a jazzy version of Psalm 118 arranged for men’s chorus by our director.

A lot of college choirs choose repertoire that shows off their technical skills. And The Genevans certainly have the chops for difficult music, including Mendelssohn’s motet on Psalm 2 and a choral fugue on Psalm 150 by J.S. Bach. But when the choir sings simple tunes, they do so just as beautifully. Despite my appreciation for intricate choral counterpoint, some of my favorite tracks are the traditional CRIMOND setting of Psalm 23 and a setting of Psalm 16 by Dr. Bob Copeland.

A drawback of this recording is that a few selections are sung in different languages, so a casual listener might not immediately benefit from those particular psalm texts without consulting the liner notes. However, the second half of the disc more than compensates for this shortcoming. Overall Psalms for the King remains one of my favorite psalm albums to listen to—not just because of my emotional attachment to the choir, but because it captures some of the best of psalm-singing from a wide variety of times and places. Below is a sample track from the album, a new setting of Psalm 130 by Geneva College professor Dr. Byron Curtis.

Psalms for the King was released in early 2015, but the album wasn’t available online until very recently. Crown & Covenant, the publishing house of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, has just begun selling the CD’s on their website for $15.

Even better, I’ve obtained permission to hold a contest for a free copy of Psalms for the King on CD (the first of its kind on URC Psalmody!). Simply submit your information here, and the sixth person (in the US or Canada) to contact me will receive a free copy. I’ll even cover the postage!

Even if you don’t win the contest, consider getting yourself a copy of Psalms for the King. It will bring joy to your ears and your soul.

–MRK

Buy Psalms for the King (C&C) »

Enter the giveaway contest »


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